Fighter with a 'fresh face': What Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could bring as Biden's VP pick

Key Points
  • Beyond delivering Michigan, Gov. Whitmer, a 48-year old mother of two, would add youth to the 77-year old former vice president's campaign.
  • "She's a fresh face," said Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist and former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton.
  • He added that her status as a Washington outsider, unlike Biden's, is a selling point. "What the country is looking for solution wise is not in Washington," he said.
Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, speaks during a campaign event with former Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, not pictured, in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, March 9, 2020.
Erin Kirkland | Bloomberg | Getty images

Joe Biden is seeking a woman to be his 2020 running mate, and Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer is on the shortlist.  

The first-term governor is a rising star in the Democratic Party whose convincing 2018 congressional victories brought the rust-belt swing state back into the blue column for the first time in eight years.

Democrats believe Michigan is a must win for presumptive nominee Biden and having Whitmer on the ticket could deliver the state.

Beyond delivering Michigan, Whitmer, a 48-year-old mother of two, would add youth to the 77-year old former vice president's campaign.

"She's a fresh face," said Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist and former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton. He added that her status as a Washington outsider, unlike Biden's, is a selling point. "What the country is looking for solution wise is not in Washington," he said.

The U.S. is currently going through remarkable upheaval. It is struggling to recover from a triple threat of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, a crushing economic downturn brought on by efforts to slow the spread of the disease and civil unrest over the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The nation is even more polarized than it was in 2016, when Donald Trump, a political novice and ultimate Washington outsider, was elected in a surprising electoral college victory over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton – the only female presidential nominee in U.S. history.

Michigan played a pivotal role in the president's win.

Just doing her job

Whitmer, who declined to comment for this story, confirmed to other outlets that she has had conversations about joining the Biden ticket, but said she is not lobbying for the job.

"I just know that, you know, you don't run for that. That is a selection of the top of the ticket, and everyone else should be just busy doing their jobs," she told POLITICO Playbook in late April as the coronavirus pandemic hit its peak in her state.

Whitmer has been a popular figure in Michigan for years. She climbed the political ladder, serving in the state's House of Representatives from 2001 to 2006 and in the Michigan Senate from 2006 to 2015. In 2013, she leaped into the national spotlight during a debate on abortion in which she revealed that she had been sexually assaulted.

She ran for governor in 2018 as a pragmatic candidate promising to "fix the damn roads." She won her race against state Attorney General Bill Schuette by a margin of nearly 10 points.

Michigan's economy took a turn for the worse in 2019 as it faced headwinds from Trump's trade war, the auto worker strikes against General Motors and job cuts at other car manufacturers, according to the University of Michigan.
The state was on track for a turnaround in 2020, Michigan News reported, until the coronavirus changed everything.

In February, she was selected to give the Democratic response to Trump's 2020 State of the Union address, an honor generally reserved for the party's ascendant members.

Whitmer again grabbed the nation's attention in April when she called out the Trump administration for failing to provide adequate protective gear, equipment and testing to battle the virus.

Trump punched back with negative tweets. Soon, protesters, egged on by the president, showed up at the state capitol brandishing weapons and demanding an end to strict stay-at-home measures enacted by the governor as Covid-19 cases in Detroit and other areas multiplied.

The controversy, while raising her profile, could actually hurt her chances of making Biden's final cut.

"The impact of the pandemic on Michigan and the protests in general does make it more likely that Biden will look elsewhere for a running mate," said Joshua Spivak, senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.

"Any reelection race is effectively a referendum on the incumbent. Choosing Whitmer may draw attention away from some of the more unpopular decisions that Trump has made," he said.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) speaks at democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden's primary night event at the University of South Carolina on February 29, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Shifting political winds

What's more, in recent weeks the political winds have shifted, casting even more doubt on her potential to become Biden's No.2.

Floyd's death from asphyxiation while in police custody set off what has become weeks of protests in cities across the nation and the world as demonstrators black and white demand racial justice and police reform.

That could push Biden, who has opened a substantial lead over Trump according to several national polls, to choose a black running mate. African-Americans were instrumental in his victory in a crowded primary field.

Biden's campaign declined to comment for this story. But South Carolina's powerful Rep. James Clyburn, who endorsed Biden ahead of the state's pivotal primary, told Axios he would advise the former vice president: "We need to have a woman on the ticket, and I prefer an African American woman."

California Sen. Kamala Harris is the top choice on many lips in Washington. But there are other women of color who are reportedly under consideration, including former Orlando police chief and Rep. Val Demings, President Barack Obama's former national security advisor Susan Rice, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid for governor of Georgia in 2018.

Some progressives are pushing for Elizabeth Warren, who is on the verge of turning 71 as the party is looking to groom its next generation of leaders. She and Biden have also had some clear policy differences.

Whitmer like Biden is a moderate, but that means that she won't help bring progressives to the table. She's also less experienced than some others in the running. Biden recently told CBS News he wants a No.2  "who is ready to be president on day one."

"I'm not sure anyone is ever ready to be president, but she has less experience on paper than some other people do," Sosnik said of Whitmer.

Another hurdle 

There's another hurdle for Whitmer.

Democrats shy away from choosing governors as running mates, said Spivak, noting the last time a sitting governor was selected by a Democratic nominee was Nebraska's Charles Bryan in 1924. This is partly because of the many executive decisions they must make that can come back to haunt them during a campaign.

Spivak notes that Biden in 2020 has a long list of qualified female candidates he can tap instead.

The last time a Democrat chose a female running mate was when Walter Mondale tapped Rep. Geraldine Ferrarro in 1984, when Spivak says, there were no female Democratic senators or governors to chose from.

Whitmer seems prepared to be passed over. As she told Politico in April, "I think that there are some phenomenal women leaders across the country, and I will be the most enthusiastic supporter of [a] Biden-whomever ticket."

Correction: This story was updated to correctly describe Whitmer's margin of victory.